Amateurs in the United States had waited years for a new legal and regulatory structure for radio as they watched, witnessed and withstood an arduous, frustrating legislative process. In summer 1927, just as they were absorbing the impact of the new radio law, an international conference was set to convene in Washington. No one knew what to expect. In principle, it could all be thrown up in the air again were the US to be a signatory to a new international radio treaty.

ARRL Secretary Kenneth Warner weighed the issue as he pondered the nature of amateur radio on his editorial page in QST.1 Ham radio was different from other hobbies in that it provided a service ready for use by the country in times of emergency—natural and war time. Amateurs volunteered their time, bought and built their own equipment, maintained their stations. Their experiments benefited the companies from which amateurs purchased equipment and parts, and invented radio technologies and techniques which the companies could then commercialize. And it was thought, perhaps naively, that direct contact between amateurs of different nations might, in some small way, help foster international good will and possibly even avoid war. With all that in mind, Warner asked, “Isn’t it clearly the duty of every enlightened Government—or, if you please, isn’t it clearly to its selfish interest—to see that adequate privileges are given its radio amateurs, in order that these benefits may redound to the State?” Hams hoped the conference members would agree.

Like the US had been before the Radio Act of 1927, the world was stuck back in 1912—at least as far as radio law was concerned. The upcoming conference’s main purpose would be to revise the London Convention of 1912,2 the last time such a meeting had taken place. Involving hundreds of representatives from all over the world, it would likely run for weeks. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover planned to lead a fourteen-person American delegation supported by a staff of perhaps two dozen more.

In advance of the conference, an international organizational bureau assembled a “Book of Proposals” contributed by the international delegations, which was then translated and published by the US State Department. A ponderous volume “the size of a Sears-Roebuck catalog,” according to Warner, only a small portion pertained to amateur radio. The American delegation’s contribution strongly supported the protection of the amateur bands as already allocated in the US, but did not prescribe how individual countries’ governments must support the service, leaving it up to them to decide. This was probably the way things would go, since none of the proposals suggested that band allocation should be done by country or geographical region, or in any way other than by service type. Most proposals were much more restrictive on amateur operation than the one from the US.

Britain continued to advocate the use of two-letter call sign prefixes to indicate nationality and DE as the sole intermediate instead of the IARU system of country-dependent intermediates. Annoyed by this (he favored the system of country-designated intermediates that had been briefly in use), Warner described the situation as a British intent to “foist on the world its dizzy policy,” and “for no good reason” too! Ironically, later in the same issue carrying his complaint, an article identified its authors using the IARU intermediates, but in exactly the way the British were proposing: as a prefix appended (albeit in lower case letters) to the front of their call signs. In fact, this had already been a common practice on the air for some time.

The Conference consumed the full attention of the League as the board and headquarters staff digested the Propositions pour la Conference, as the Bureau’s tome was titled.3 Participation by the League was a given and individuals had already been named to serve on the delegation, another recognition of amateur radio’s role as a peer of the other radio services. ARRL Vice President Charles Stewart was appointed as a technical advisor to the American delegation’s committee on technical matters, Warner would present an analysis of proposals related to amateur radio, and both were appointed to the committee on shortwave allocations. Both the US Army and Navy had endorsed the League’s participation as well, a direct result of the successful cooperative work the League had undertaken with the military.

The possibility of losing the newly established US amateur allocations was naturally the greatest threat American amateur radio faced at the conference. Briefly challenged by broadcasting interests, 20 meters was expected to safely remain with amateur radio primarily because of its harmonic relationship to the lower-frequency bands, which were also considered safe from attack. Thus, the US would probably propose that the 80-, 40- and 20-meter bands be assigned to amateur radio worldwide. And in mid-September as the conference prepared to convene, the American delegation further added the 5- and ¾-meter bands to their proposal.4

Warner accompanied ARRL Canadian General Manager Russell to meet with his government’s delegation and that of the United Kingdom. The British had been meeting in Canada with the other British dominions to discuss and plan for the conference. They peppered Warner with questions about the environment for amateur radio in the US, such as the size of the amateur population (now around 16,000), the privileges they enjoyed and their relationship with the government. They gave him over an hour to present his full story. Warner was surprised by how little the British delegation, a group with absolute authority over all radio in the UK, knew about amateur radio—practically nothing at all, in fact—and wondered how it could be

“that our amateurs over there have been so backward about introducing themselves to their officials! It seems that our amateurs over there are ‘scared to death’ of their officials and have just about never made any clean-cut representation before them. We don’t know why this situation should exist. We thought them quite approachable and open-minded – they were not antagonistic, they were merely abysmally uninformed.”

What he perceived as affability would later prove illusory.

Warner and Russell asked for their support and, while the officials did not commit to anything, they assured the two League officers that British amateurs would be supported fairly. “We hope that this account of our adventures with the delegation will simply make the hair stand straight up on the heads of British amateurs. Get onto yourselves, you fellows over there!” wrote Warner, somewhat reassured. Based on seeing only one side, his assessment of the British amateurs’ relationship with their government had missed the mark, as he would later come to understand once the conference got underway.

Stewart and Warner attended the entire conference in Washington and were joined occasionally by Maxim.5 Warner found the mood immediately alarming. Among the countries represented, amateur radio clearly had few friends, but opponents everywhere.6 Many of them had been allowing amateur operation on the basis that it was temporary, pending action by this conference. With the exception of the US, Canada and a few others, most believed that amateurs should now be severely restricted. There was acute contention for spectrum space, and state controlled radio organizations objected to amateur message traffic, seeing it as competition. Nevertheless a consensus began to form that there should at least be an amateur allocation near 150 meters and a few narrow, harmonically related bands in the shortwaves. Each country would individually set power limitations, determine whether their amateurs may communicate internationally and determine whether message traffic would be permitted.

To Warner this mostly sounded fine although he worried about the definition of “narrow.” He remained pessimistic due to the overwhelming number of countries that seemed to be against amateur radio in principle and predicted that “we are going to suffer heavily.” Even The United Kingdom, whom he judged as friendly when he met the group in Canada, and generally one of the amateurs’ advocates at the conference, was in favor only of “spot waves” of zero width, although it was not clear how such a thing could be enforced or even exist.

Maxim’s own initial assessment was not much different. Of the fifty-two nations at the conference, forty-eight of them had “no use for radio amateurs,” he commented.7 The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand comprised the small group of proponents who valued amateur radio, the result of years of cooperative work and contributions to radio technology by amateurs in those countries. The existence of IARU helped somewhat, but it had only been operating for two years.

Warner speculated glumly that retaining 40% of the current US allocations might be a very optimistic outcome, but 5% was his better guess. “Get ready right now, fellows, for just the saddest news you could hear short of actual extermination,” he wrote heavily. Looking for a silver lining he wondered whether adversity might be what amateurs needed to promote new methods and cooperation. He was not very far off; amateurs had been through this before. But his pessimistic prediction was premature.

Amateur radio matters were debated mainly in the Technical Committee, one of several that divided up the work at the convention. Fortunately this one had friends of amateur radio in leadership positions, including Professor A. E. Kennelly of Harvard, E. H. Shaughnessy of the British Post Office and Professor G. Vanni of Rome, president of the Italian section of IARU.

From the outset, the American delegation insisted on recognition and support for amateur radio. Surprisingly, the British delegation led the opposition, leading Warner to later apologize to the amateurs in the UK for stating in his earlier editorial that they did not know their officials. As it turned out, they knew them all too well.

The Committee on General Regulations took up the question of the nature of amateur operation. One member, US Congressman White, author of several US radio bills and an amateur radio advocate, argued against anything that would limit message traffic or content within any country, leaving it up to each one to decide on their own restrictions. One proposal went so far as to prohibit “personal or actual information” to be exchanged between amateurs, whatever that would mean.

As expected, the subcommittee on allocations drew the largest crowd, with delegates from all seventy-eight countries and territories participating. With the committee itself burdened by heavy, time-consuming, formal proceedings involving translation and recording of minutes, most of the real work took place in smaller, informal groups at night or over tea. Their members thus became known as “tea cuppers.” Since these groups fostered free expression of views, they were quite effective as a back channel for negotiation, and without the impedimenta of the committee they could more rapidly reach agreements.

An eleven-member “sub-sub-committee” on amateur radio was formed at the insistence of the US delegation and Warner was appointed to it. There was general agreement—even from the British—that bands for amateurs should be harmonically related. But the size of those bands was at issue, with a vague suggestion that 100 kHz might be the right width. The general recommendations were reported to the parent Technical Committee where it then waited while the all-important broadcast allocations above 200 meters were considered.

The committee next took up the detailed discussion of the shortwaves. Warner was invited to be one of the tea cuppers in these sessions as the sole representative of the amateurs. With the weight of worldwide amateur radio resting on his shoulders, his anxiety, as expressed in his earlier editorial, is understandable. He could consult with Stewart and the others only during session breaks.

But Warner was not completely alone. Supporting him from the American delegation was Major General Charles McKinley Saltzman, Chief Signal Officer of the US Army, a driving force behind an ARRL-Army joint program. His chief of research and development, Captain S. C. Hooper, chief of the US Navy’s Radio Section of the Bureau of Engineering, and Lieutenant Commander T. A. M. Craven of his staff were also members. Hooper presided over the informal sessions while Craven conducted most of the negotiations and drafted the proposed allocation plan. Warner later heaped most of the credit on these three officers, especially Craven, writing

“It may be said that he is personally responsible for the successful negotiating of the wave-length agreements embodied in the Washington Convention of 1927. What a monument to have to one’s credit! The conference has praised him for it. I sing his praises too, for he was the staunch and clever friend of the amateur and in large measure we owe what we got from the conference to his skill and perseverance. These three officers let no opportunity go by to stand up for us. If we did not get all we want, it only shows the difficulty of the task and how hopeless we would have been without their help. I want to tell you amateurs that our friendly bonds with the Army and Navy have paid the richest possible dividends!”

Over the course of eight days and six meetings, the informal sessions, which averaged an attendance of twenty-five, first debated allocations for point-to-point and mobile services, then broadcasting, postponing consideration of amateur allocations until later. Warner could barely contain himself as he waited for these debates to conclude, as they often discussed segments he knew would infringe upon proposed amateur bands.

When the amateur allocations finally came up for discussion, the initial proposal was to have them all shared within the already shared bands assigned to point-to-point and mobile services. The Americans countered with a proposal for exclusive amateur allocations at 20, 40, 80 and 160 meters where years of operation had already kept those bands free of commercial operations. No one else seemed to like it, and no immediate agreement could be reached, so the strategy shifted to negotiating allocations one band at a time.

Smaller groups formed to discuss ideas. One sub-group of seven went to work on broadcasting and amateur allocations, with Warner again the only amateur representative and Craven the only US government representative. At Warner’s urging, Craven got agreement to a non-exclusive band from 3,500 to 4,000 kc, the already operational US limits at 80 meters. Next, the 20-meter allocation was trimmed back to between 14,000 and 14,400 kHz, one-fifth its previous size, which had been determined solely by its harmonic relationship to the size of the 40-meter band, a width that could not be justified by current use. Then came discussion of the 40-meter band itself, the most popular one for nighttime international communications. The US proposal asked for 7,000 to 8,000 kHz while the British suggested only a 100-kHz total width. The group agreed on the lower frequency band edge but had trouble getting any higher than 7,200, due primarily to the existence of German and Canadian broadcasting stations already operating in the segment above. For the moment, the group settled on 7,000 to 7,225, without Warner’s agreement, and moved its attention to the 10- and 5-meter allocations. The next morning the German delegate agreed to compromise and extend the band to 7,300; the British went along with moving some stations too. Still at the informal level and therefore not binding on the participants, the group agreed nevertheless that this would be their final version, stood behind the plan as a block, and therefore got it adopted by the subcommittee, the Technical Committee, and finally the plenary convention session.

“This was the largest international conference ever held in the history of the world, with nearly eighty nations represented, and they had unanimously agreed upon the partition of wavelengths from 80,000 meters to zero,” wrote Warner. While the allocations amounted to agreements on where amateur operation could take place, the Conference allowed each country to decide how much space would actually be allocated, if any. But although an individual government could decide not to give amateurs any privileges at all in a given band, they would be prohibited from using it for anything else. This provision removed all motivation to curtail amateur operation based upon a desire for more spectrum for something else.

Besides determining access to band allocations, the conference also left it up to each country to assign power level limitations individually. All would have to adhere to band limits and emission characteristics, and license stations in a way that would assure the proficiency of operators.

To make unambiguous identification possible, call signs would be assigned according to the established national commercial call sign plan, which consisted of one or two letters denoting the country, and the single intermediate DE, finally eliminating the stopgap IARU intermediates to which Warner and others seemed to be so attached.

It was thought that using kilocycles (kc) for specifying frequency was better than using Megacycles (Mc) since whole numbers could be used. That way no Morse commas or periods had to be used on the air. However, Mc could be used for convenience when referring to bands. So the kilocycle was officially adopted by the convention and the US Department of Commerce.8

The six amateur band allocations were specified in kc as:

1,715–2,000:               shared amateur, mobile, point-to-point
3,500–4,000:               shared amateur, mobile, point-to-point7,000–7,300:                        amateur exclusive
14,000–14,400:           amateur exclusive
28,000–30,000:           amateur and experimental
56,000–60,000:           amateur and experimental

Discontinuation of phone privileges on 80 meters was not unanimously favored and led to some understandable angst.9 Some even blamed the ARRL recommendation for this on “unauthorized personal views of an individual or two at Headquarters” as part of a “plan of persecution of the phone, aiming to do away with it,” wrote Warner, possibly referring to Kruse, who had been phone’s most vocal critic. But it had been duly voted upon by the board, and argued in favor mostly because the 80-meter band was where most message and emergency traffic was taking place. The board judged it preferable instead to more than double the phone band at 150 meters since that band’s characteristics were similar and it was mostly unused by telegraphy stations, which meant less interference to phone operations. And the opening of a 20-meter phone allocation more than made up for the loss by making the possibility of international and long distance contacts available to phone operators for the first time.

Before-after 1927 v2

The harmonic relationships between the amateur bands before and after trimming. They are scaled in size so that their harmonic frequencies are aligned. The red numbers indicate the position of the wavelength within each band. Notice that after trimming, 40 and 80 meter wavelengths lie outside the bands they name.

While Warner’s earlier pessimism was understandable at the time, “It will now be apparent,” he wrote at the conference’s conclusion, “… that the story of our impending demise was greatly exaggerated.”10 With backing from the American delegation, and against the wishes of most European nations, amateurs had received recognition and privileges well beyond their expectations of only one month earlier. The official ARRL reaction would come from its board, but the HQ crew in attendance viewed the outcome as having “succeeded beyond the wildest dreams to which we were entitled at that time.”

The objections of the European delegations, which came close to calling for the complete abolition of amateur radio, would need to be thoroughly examined and discussed since they might arise again in five years at the next conference. Warner condensed them into nine major points: fear of the state losing revenue due to large numbers of amateurs handling messages; European propensity to hold control over private communication; anticipated lack of control over amateur operation resulting in interference problems; desire to own all wavelengths; sensitivity to a perceived military nature to amateur radio prompted in part by the endorsement of the US military members of the American delegation; fear by state authorities of uncontrolled broadcasting of anti-state information or propaganda; reluctance to take on an additional administrative burden; and fear of the political power of large numbers of amateur radio operators. Most of these concerns amounted to governmental uneasiness with widespread access to easy communication by large numbers of individuals.

The Conference concluded with participants signing their endorsement on 25 November 1927 after eight weeks of work by hundreds of delegates representing seventy-eight countries and other territories. For ratifying countries, its provisions would become binding on 1 January 1929, finally superseding the 1912 London Convention.

The most significant result for amateurs, from which all other provisions emanated, was international recognition of amateur radio for the first time. This was no small achievement considering that support for amateur radio’s mere existence came only from the US, Canada (primarily Commander Edwards alone), Australia, New Zealand and Italy. Although the countries in direct support were few in number, not all the other countries actually participated in the discussions and therefore could not fairly be counted as definitely opposed.11 The active opposition consisted of Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Belgium, and Major Steel of Canada.

BT sep sm

The international convention originally began in 1906 in Berlin and was chartered to meet every 5 years. It was where the term radio was first adopted internationally. Back then, governments were free to allow amateur operation at low power in whatever way they chose because its effective range did not cross international boundaries. One kilowatt was considered low power and ranges were tens of miles. But the London convention of 1912 established international rules that unexpectedly remained in effect until the 1927 convention that just concluded, the two intervening ones in 1917 and in 1922 having been cancelled because of the war and its aftermath. This was the same interval during which amateur radio matured along with the development of the short waves and the radio broadcast boom. This was why all the interim regulation had been considered temporary. Increasingly an international matter, the nature of radio had changed fundamentally but had only an antiquated international treaty to guide it.

The new Convention was ratified by the US Senate on 21 March 1928, meaning its provisions would go into effect in nationwide on 1 January 1929.12 The full, 118-page convention document was made available from the US Government Printing Office. QST published excerpts of particular interest to amateurs 13 and it was officially accepted by the ARRL board.14

With the convention concluded, the Federal Radio Commission held a new round of hearings in January 1928 to gather information before beginning to define new shortwave allocations, and faced a barrage of opinions from a wide variety of commercial interests.15 They did not always know why or where they wanted spectrum, just that they wanted some. “So many people who knew nothing about radio never before assembled in the same room to talk about it,” wrote Warner sarcastically in his March editorial. The world was certainly a different place than existed only a few years earlier when amateurs were relegated to the “worthless” wavelengths below 200 meters. As the commission considered allocation of “channels” as advocated by the established radio industry, it became apparent that the demand was already far exceeding the available space, based on current capabilities.

Although amateur allocations had been secured at the International Convention, the League took the opportunity to testify at the FRC’s hearings and pressed for no reduction in the pre-convention allocations until the end of the year, when it would become mandatory. It further asked the commission to consider making the 160- and 80-meter amateur allocations exclusive in the US, even though internationally they would be shared. The one exception would be the existing sharing arrangement on 80 meters with the US military. The ARRL also complained about observed non-amateur use of the bands using amateur call signs, and interference caused by harmonics from commercial stations.

As spring approached, and administrative control reverted to the Secretary of Commerce on 15 March, he immediately authorized the Commission to continue, pending congressional passage of new legislation, which soon followed on 28 March and provided for the Commission to continue in their administrative role. The FRC then ordered that all station licenses issued by the Commerce Department would be terminated on 31 August and replaced with Commission licenses. This was, in part, to prepare for the new licensing of shortwave commercial stations under the international treaty. That summer, acting on a request from the ARRL, the government also reinstated the Amateur Extra First Grade License, abandoned in the spring of 1927 with only 150 holders.16 Considered a higher class of license, it required 20 WPM code proficiency, the same as for a commercial license, and a broader written examination. It was believed that amateurs would aspire to obtain this class of license as a distinguishing credential denoting a “superior amateur.” No additional privileges came with the granting of this license.

The situation for phone operation was still unsettled as it continued to grow in popularity. Maxim came to the defense of phone operators, comparing the negative attitude of some to the similar attitude toward CW by spark operators a few years earlier.17 Amateurs needed to be tolerant as many CW ops were interested in phone too. And there was no threat to CW; its advantages in information conveyance remained. “Our code is as safe as the ages,” he wrote, “We code men can easily afford to be tolerant.”

After hearing arguments by a representative of phone operators, the ARRL board decided to recommend to the FRC that phone operation be permitted on 150 to 175 meters, on 3,500 to 3,550 kHz, reinstating half of the previous phone band, and rescind the allocation at 20 meters.18 The rationale for this was that “at the present state of the technique” a channel size increases with the frequency, requiring more space at 20 than at 80 for a phone signal—something like 40 kHz, it was estimated, according to “reliable engineering figures.” This view would begin to change in the coming year as more stable transmitters were designed and demonstrated.

After the League made its recommendations, the FRC opened the 10-meter band to operation and adopted the modifications to the phone allocations (1,715 to 2,000, 3,500 to 3,550 and 56,000 to 64,000 kHz) before the new treaty took effect. For the time being, the other bands remained at their previous, wider limits.

The commission also defined an amateur station simply as “…a station operated by a person interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest. Amateur licenses will not be issued to stations of other classes.” As before, amateur stations were prohibited from communicating with government or commercial stations except during emergencies or for testing purposes. Amateurs were also prohibited from “broadcasting news, music, lectures, sermons or any form of entertainment, or to conduct any form of commercial correspondence.”

What was once a fuzzy boundary had finally come into sharp focus.

AR sep sm

de W2PA

  1. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, July 1927, 7.
  2. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, September 1927, 7.
  3. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, October 1927, 7.
  4. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, November 1927, 7.
  5. Kenneth B. Warner, “The Amateur and the International Radiotelegraph Conference,” QST, January 1928, 15.
  6. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, December 1927, 9.
  7. H. P. Maxim, “Big Dividends,” QST, December 1927, 11.
  8. Official Frequency Stations, QST, November 1928, 68.
  9. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, February 1928, 8.
  10. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, January 1928, 7.
  11. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, February 1928, 8.
  12. Kenneth B. Warner, “Recent Changes in Radio Law and Regulations,” QST, May 1928, 14.
  13. “Extracts from the Washington Convention,” QST, February 1928, 28.
  14. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, February 1928, 9.
  15. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, March 1928, 7.
  16. Kenneth B. Warner, Editorial, QST, September 1928, 7.
  17. H. P. Maxim, “Let’s Be Tolerant,” QST, May 1928, 24.
  18. “The ARRL Board Meets,” QST, April 1928, 21.

Leave a Reply